The Jean Pigozzi African Art Collection

Jean Pigozzi: The Collecting Life

In 1989 I saw a show in Paris: Magiciens de la terre. It had a profound effect on me. Before this show, I had no idea that so much amazing contemporary art was being made in Africa. After the show, when I met Andre Magnin (one of the curators of the show), I decided to collect mainly contemporary African art.

To me at that time, African art was the stuff that one sees at the Metropolitan in New York – dark wood masks, dogs full of nails, gold jewellery, carved drums – or it was the junk one can buy at Mombasa airport. But in Paris I saw paintings that could have been done by a hip artist living in a loft in Brooklyn, or sculptures made out of plastic that could be seen in an elegant gallery in Berlin. I was stunned, and thrilled. The colours, the imagination, the subjects – I was definitely impressed. Of course I knew that interesting creative work was happening all over the world, but there seemed to be no way to find it, to see it. When I met Andre Magnin I realized that together we could put together a serious collection of contemporary African art. In my life, I love to make new discoveries: new music, new food, new technology, new art… the exhibition was a complete revelation to me. I wanted to explore my new discovery.

My collection started as a small dream but soon became a huge, exciting reality. I realised immediately that it could help the Western world understand that good art can come from the dusty streets of Dakar and the poor, remote villages of Ethiopia, as well as from air-conditioned studios in SoHo, New York. From a young age I was a collector. Toy cars, stamps, rocks, trains …

I was always intrigued by contemporary art, but in the ’60s and ’70s in Paris it was hard to find. My parents were typical European bourgeois. They had a modest collection of Renoir, Sisley, Boudin and Leger – the usual – but no masterpieces. Their taste was for safe Impressionists, but not Picasso, Braque or Jasper Johns. My mother took me to hundreds of museums and art galleries but nothing too avant garde. She was quite traditional. My parents’ friends were industrialists, bankers, politicians, and ambassadors. My mother played gin rummy with ladies with little dogs and blue hair. There were no contemporary artists in their circle, nor brilliant cutting-edge art curators.

Nonetheless, Illeana Sonnabend had a gallery in Paris where I bought my first Rauschenberg collage in the mid-seventies. I began seriously collecting art when I was at Harvard from ’70 to ’74. I often went to New York for the weekend, and would spend many hours at the Museum of Modern Art and at the Whitney. I would also visit some of the galleries downtown. It was all so exciting – this was the time of Conceptual Art and Minimalism; Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt. Douglas Huebler (the conceptual artist) was my professor, and he was a great influence.

I am dyslexic, so I never read that much about art theory or art history. Instead I looked at thousands of art books and art magazines of all kinds. I visited hundreds of museums, trillions of art galleries (from good, to bad, to super-bad!), and spectacular exhibitions all over the world. I have never been interested in the politics that surround art. That just seems pointless to me – I hate it. I am interested in good, new, strong, innovative art; not talking about it for hours and hours. It is possible to collect good art if one has the right friends – friends with taste – and a lot of money. But this kind of collecting has never interested me. I have zero interest in speculation – I am more like a sick addict, wanting more and more of what I love. For this kind of addiction, there are only a few remedies: death, bankruptcy, or lack of space. I drive slowly, I don’t drink or smoke, I am careful with my money and my warehouse is not full (yet). So… the collecting goes on!

My goal with this collection is to show how good and original African contemporary art is in the twenty-first century. I am in no rush, and I have nothing too prove to anyone, but I do think that African contemporary art has a place in all the serious contemporary art museums around the world. Bodys Kingelez and Seydou Keïta are as interesting and important as Richard Serra and Richard Avedon. Exhibitions like Documenta and other international biennials help to validate the power and the importance of contemporary African art around the world, and they show that African art is on the same level as Western art. Often, to me, it is even more vibrant, interesting and innovative. I am not a pioneer – many others before me have started collections of art from obscure periods or unknown artists – and I am not an intellectual; I am just an obsessed collector. I love what I collect and I really do not care what anybody else thinks. As for the critics, well, I don’t care about intellectual art gossip. Let them think whatever they like. I just want all the artists in my collection to be happy, and to be proud of their place in my collection. I hope that being in my collection will help them become better known and appreciated.

Without Andre Magnin’s hard and tenacious work there would be no Contemporary African Art Collection whatsoever. His eye, his ability to work (sometimes in very difficult conditions), his sense of humour, his countless cigarettes, his impossible sentimental life… all these are integral to the creation of the collection. I wanted a collection that would be different, original and new. I do not have an acquisition committee: André is the scout, and I decide which artists to concentrate on. André is assisted by Philippe Boutté and Belinda Paumelle in Paris, and Patrick Marchand in Geneva. They help with the countless problems and logistical issues which crop up: problems with local customs, bad packing (there are not many sophisticated art shippers in Africa), foreign bugs turning up in some of the wood sculptures, payments, crating and shipping, organizing trips, cataloguing, and storing. André also organizes all the shows and has contacts with curators all over the world.

The most important job that André does is to keep in touch with all of the artists, and to help them in their work. We frequently send art supplies to Africa, since good quality paints and canvases are hard to find there. A great source of discovery fo us has been through the artists themselves – quite often, one will tell us about another. Seydou Keïta, for example, told André about Malick Sidibé.

I have worked with André on this collection from day one. It is amazing how we nearly agree on every piece that should be included in the collection. Whilst our backgrounds and education have been different, our collector’s eye is strangely similar. I feel so lucky that we found each other, and after fifteen years we are still going strong. It is my hope that we will work together for another twenty or thirty years. We still have so much more to do, and I am still as enthusiastic – as driven – as I was on day one. I feel totally excited when I see a new Chéri Samba, or a new series of drawings by Bruly Bouabré. I am never blasé. Most of the artists in my collection are “self taught”, which is something that I really like about them. The artists are all different, all unique. They are not trying to copy the style of Warhol, Renoir, Matisse, Koons, Kieffer, Clemente or Picasso. Their work is strikingly original.

Most good African artists get their inspiration from everyday life on the street, from TV, from the radio, or from magazines. Chéri Samba said ‘contrary to academic painting, I’m not challenging the kind of painting that needs to be explained to be understood; it isn’t my way. I draw my inspiration from everyday life and from wandering around different neighborhoods.’ The non-formal art education of African artists is so much part of their work. They are totally innovative, whereas even the best art schools and teachers influence their pupils. Very good teachers will let their students develop their unique styles, but in a situation where there are no great teachers, no wonderful schools, then inspiration comes from deep inside your imagination – it is totally personal. That is what fascinates me about these artists. Once I began working with André to build the CAAC, I asked him to get in touch with all of the African artists who were in the Magiciens show, and to look for new artists as well. Over the last fifteen years, we have discovered at least twenty great artists. This makes me extremely happy, and so proud. I have met many of the artists whose work is included in my collection, and we have an excellent relationship. I am always so impressed by their intelligence. To be a great artist one must be very bright, hard-working, tenacious, and obsessed with one’s work. I have nothing but admiration and respect for these artists, and I think they know it – that is why they trust me, and want to keep on working with me. It makes me very proud to think that through André Magnin’s work, and my collecting, we have managed to improve the lives of many of the artists in the collection. We have helped them become well-known, and of course we have helped them financially. This has given them and their families better living conditions, which in turn enables them to be even more creative.

I have donated some works to African museums. It does not cost much to start even a modest museum in a small African town, where artists can show their work. This will inspire dozens of other artists, and some of them might be really good, or one day even world famous. Chéri Samba has an ambition to create a Chéri Samba Foundation in Kinshasa, and he has my total support. I am waging my campaign for the artists themselves. In a very poor country there are more pressing things to attend to than art. I do not blame any African nation for their neglect, but I hope that we will set an example that some countries will follow. I hope that our engagement will make Africa proud.

CAAC artists have had shows curated all over the world, and many are now represented by very good art dealers. Throughout history, dealers have helped artists to succeed. Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler was Picasso’s dealer for many years, and helped him a great deal. The Medicis famously patronised many artists. All the rich ladies that Andy Warhol painted were helping him and the Factory to live. Artists have to live, like everybody else on the planet. Some artists are better businessmen than others, which means that it is not always the best who are the most prosperous. Whilst I have been able to help certain artists in the collection become more accepted by the art world, it is still impossible to make a great artist out of a bad artist.

Personally, I have to fall in love immediately with an artist’s work. I don’t need to know about his or her age, education, nationality or religion – but I do want to have a coup de foudre. I do also need to see work from the previous three or four years, to understand how an artist got to where he or she is now. Some artists can make one or two great paintings, some architects can build a great house, some rock and roll singers can have one smash hit. But a great artist – like Picasso, Matisse, Richard Serra, Mick Jagger or Mozart – can produce ‘hits’ over many years. So I like to see as much old work as possible from a new artist whom I am considering for the collection.

If you look at the collection we have lots of different kinds of work. We do not specialize in Minimal art or black and white photos of African nudes or non-figurative paintings. We are extremely open. The criteria are simple: the work must- be good, strong, interesting and original.

The collection also includes some masters of African photography. This is a field I know well, as I am a photographer myself. One of the photographers in this collection, Malick Sidibé, never saw the work of Robert Frank or Diane Arbus yet his party photos and his portraits are as strong as theirs. Similarly, I know that Seydou Keïta had never seen the work of August Sander or Richard Avedon, and I think his portraits are equally good. This man was a genius, a self-taught photographer with limited means – he only took one picture of each of his subjects, unlike a modern photographer who might take dozens of photos and hope to get one good enough.

In the case of Keïta and Sidibé, some of their negatives are of such great quality we were able to make very big prints. I spoke with both artists and they loved the results. At first they were a bit surprised to see such big prints – in Africa it would have been impossible to achieve such quality and size. A number of the CAAC artists are now creating installations out of found materials. They are also exploring video. Georges Adéagbo, Romuald Hazoumé and Marthine Tayou are very talented installation artists whose work I collect, but I am sure there will be others. Making and editing videos has become relatively simple and cheap, so it’s likely that interesting new video artists will pop up all around Africa. This is a fascinating art form that is perfect for Africa since it can incorporate strange images, fabulous sounds, fantastic movement, story-telling and many more things that are so particular to Africa.

As for art by African women, I love the work of Seni Awa Camara and of Esther Mahlangu. Sadly I think that it is difficult for women in Africa to become artists. But I am extremely interested in filling this gap. My eyes are open for great art created by African women.

I am certain that this contemporary African art will influence a huge number of young artists around the world. My regret is that I did not start the collection ten years earlier. I am convinced that dozens of great and fascinating artists are hiding from André and me, all around Africa, but we will find them sooner or later.

It is not easy to go from the walls of a modest studio in Mali to the walls of the Museum of Modern Art. That is another reason why I think the work that we are doing is so important. Yes, we have perhaps missed dozens of great artists, but the twenty or thirty that we have in the collection will be, and have been, seen by thousands of fascinated people around the world. This fills me with pride.

In 2005, the collection will be fifteen years old and some of its masterpieces will be shown for the first time. I hope that Houstonites, Monagasts and Washingtonions will fall in love with this collection and with some of the artists, making them the huge stars they deserve to be. We now live on a very small planet: we can hear Bob Marley in Jamaica, Japan and Finland. One can eat sushi in Kyoto, but also in New York and in Madrid. So why shouldn’t African art travel and be seen all around the world? Art does not have borders: many of the most interesting artists of today mix music from around the world, just as some of the African artists have deep African roots but also mix in new occidental visions. We must think of art as global. I do not want this collection to be stuck in an African ghetto. This is contemporary art. Yes, it comes from Africa, but so what? In the twenty-first century it is ridiculous to be limited by manmade geo-politics.

It goes without saying that if Andy Warhol lived in Kinshasa, his subjects would have been totally different. The same goes for Mick Jagger: if he had been born in Tokyo, his music would have been totally different. And so for these artists: their education, the political situation in which they have lived, their religion, their environment, even the climate of their country has influenced what they create.

When it comes to music I love the Stones, U2, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, drum and bass, dub, rap, and also Maria Callas and Edith Piaf. And so, it is similar with art: I love Western contemporary art, as well as contemporary African art. Fascinating work is being created every day, and I want to see (and to collect) more and more!

I hope that soon I will find a permanent home for my collection. Any ideas out there? It can’t be in Africa as I do not want to make any country jealous. Its home will have to be in a western country. I want teenagers and curious people to see this art. It is essential that teenagers learn to love and appreciate art very early in life. This education should be a fun process.

In the specific case of the CAAC, it is important that kids see the amazing and very diversified contemporary art that is coming out of Africa. Many kids have a totally wrong vision of Africa. Before I built the collection, my perception of African art was a hundred percent different. I had a romanticised view of Africa, based on the ‘safari’ Africa that I knew. I had failed to understand the importance of the huge, chaotic, urban mess that is so key to Africa in the twenty-first century.

Africa is an enormous and extraordinary continent, with hundreds of different religions, hundreds of different ethnic groups, and ancient traditions of all kinds. It is vast: there are deserts, rivers, mountains, coasts, and (now) giant cities, expanding uncontrollably. It has been invaded by Europeans who tried to convert its inhabitants to Christianity. For all these reasons, fascinating and vibrant art comes out of Africa, but it is simply not seen. Many of my friends are surprised by my collection – very few people know what contemporary African art is. It makes me proud, to feel like a global attaché culturel for all of Sub-Saharan Africa. The African art in the collection is a weapon against the prejudice against Africa that exists around the world. People who think that Africa is a mess, creating more and more terrible problems for us white, organized, and rich people. Africans produce art that is as good and as creative as any other region in the world, and such art can help to keep this huge bubbling continent proud and vital.

Jean Pigozzi
Geneva, June 2005